Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Photoshoot for work - Staff Pictures

I just completed a little project for work (you know - the dayjob that I haven't given up yet).  They wanted to get photos of each member of staff for use in newsletter articles, and being the official company photography bore, of course they came and sought my advice... which was their veiled way of asking me to do it for them.

I convinced them that casual/candid shots at a BBQ, which was their original plan, was probably not going to yield useful pictures of everyone, but if I set up a 'booth' type setting, I could control the lighting and background, and pose everyone in a similar way to get a set of consistent images, with a more professional feel to them.

My initial setup was done in our reception area, which has a nice big illuminated sign with the company logo that I wanted to use as a blurred backdrop.  To achieve that, I intended to use my 50mm lens with a big aperture like f/2.  Unfortunately, there wasn't enough space for me to stand far enough back to use the 50, so I had to revert to the kit 18-55 and a much smaller aperture, and have the background more in focus than I really wanted.

I finally got to use my new strobe for this project (see previous post), and also the boom arm to hold my reflector in place.  I used my Cactus V radio triggers to fire the strobe.  With the strobe in a softbox high to my right, and the reflector low to my left, I started off by using Shutter Priority mode at 1/160 to get a base exposure for the background (with the strobe off).  I then reduced that by 1 stop to darken the background a little, and put the settings into Manual mode.  Next, I grabbed a willing volunteer to stand in place while I took some test shots with the strobe on, to get the right exposure for the person, and tweaked the position of strobe and reflector.

Then it was a case of putting an X on the floor for people to stand on, and just getting people through.  I posed them all with their body facing towards the strobe, their face and shoulders halfway back towards me, and then their eyes looking at the lens.  With everyone having roughly the same positioning and pose, it gave a common feel to all the images, and made the lighting easy.  Having a mains powered strobe was a godsend as it recycled in less than a second each time (I was using it on about half power), and power output was consistent for every shot - I could have used one of my speedlights, but would probably have eaten through a set of batteries and ended up with 10 second plus recycle times.  One issue I did face, was that with staff members of varying heights, it wasn't always easy to line them up with the background, and with a few of the taller guys, I was standing on tip-toe to get the shot!

The next thing I did after completing that day's shoot, was to use FastStone Viewer to crop all the images to a square format, and used the rule of thirds grid to help ensure all the photos were of similar proportions.  I positioned their left eye on the upper right intersection, and adjusted the box to give a small clearance above their head.  Any lighting, colour tweaks, and sharpening were also done using FastStone at this point.  The last thing was to resize all the photos to 2000 pixels. I did use Photoshop on just a handful of people, in one case to combine the eyes from one shot with the smile from another, but in most cases, it was to help reduce reflections and shadows caused by glasses.

I got through about 25 people that afternoon, and then set up 2 more shoots in other locations, to get all but a handful (who presumably don't want their photos taken) of the rest.  One location was in the main office area.  I setup the lighting and posed people in exactly the same way, but pulled together a load of potted palms to act as my (distant and unfocused) backdrop.  My final location was out in the factory area.  I was lucky enough to be able to use one of our key machines as a backdrop during a 'down' day, and have that section of the factory cordoned off so we could dispense with all the normal safety gear while doing the photos.  Again, the lighting and poses were kept consistent with the first shoot.

All in all, just under 50 staff photos were produced, and everyone seemed pleased with the results.  It was a very enjoyable project.  My chosen pose and crop may be frowned upon by those that do this kind of thing as their daily bread and butter, but for my first 'corporate' photo shoot, I was very pleased with the outcome.  Now, if only I could have charged them even just $20 per person, I'd have a couple of new lenses now! LOL

Until the next time, happy snappin'.

PS - my thanks to Vito, our HR Manager, for agreeing to let me post his pictures as my examples.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

My first studio strobe

Yes, I've finally got a proper studio strobe and softbox. Using speedlights for off-camera lighting can be more convenient as they are certainly more portable, but recycle times can start stretching out once the batteries begin to lose their power. The strobe, being mains powered, will recycle in around 1 second every time (maybe 2 seconds if you are using it at full power).  The strobe also has a modeling light which helps reduce the trial and error with positioning light and subject.

Having looked at the strobes available in the normal camera stores and online, I couldn't justify the $400-500 price tags I was seeing for even fairly modest 200WS strobes, and the cost-effective Alien Bees that everyone seems to rave about, appeared to only be available for 120V (not much use to me here in Aus). So it was off to eBay for a search.

There are hundreds and hundreds of ads on eBay for cheap strobes, and lighting kits comprising multiple strobes, but be careful...  while the price may look attractive, just check out the specs. The one thing I saw time and time again on pretty much all the cheap models, was that their power range was shown as 8 'steps', or adjustable to 1/8 power. This is NOT equivalent to 8 f-stops. From full power to 1/8 is actually only a range of 3 stops - the equivalent of going from f/8 to f/11 to f/16 to f/22. I really wanted to try and find a strobe that had more control than that - similar to my speedlights which have the ability to go down to 1/128 power, which is a 7 stop range.

I found 2 potentials.  The first was a Pegasus P300A 300WS head supplied by a company called pro4aussie based in Victoria. It was around the $100 mark, but unfortunately, they were out of stock and could not supply me one back in March. Since then, the postage on their eBay ad has gone up to a whopping $100 - which is usually a sign that they still cannot supply the goods but don't want to take down the advert.

So option 2 was the DSLRKIT Flame-200 - a 200WS head for about the same price, but coming from China. After consulting with the dealer, it was (rather vaguely) confirmed that this head should have an 8 f-stop range, not just 8 steps from full down to 1/8 power. I gave the details to my family, who were clubbing together to get this for my birthday.

When the light arrived, my first disappointment was that it came with a European plug on the end of the (extra long) mains lead, but after a quick unplanned trip to Bunnings to buy a new plug, I was able to plug it in and test it. Everything worked, and it flashed OK (phew - always worry about anything glass or fragile coming through the post). The next slight disappointment was that the head has a 2 digit LED display on it, so I had assumed that the power would be adjustable in decimal increments as well as full stops - or at least in halves or thirds... but no, the power settings are 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, and 80.  So what is the point of the second LED digit, I hear you ask?  Yes - I'm wondering the same...  Oh well, this is actually only a very minor inconvenience, and if I ever really need to be that precise, then I can move the light stand slightly, or make the adjustment in camera. Just one more observation - the modeling light power is not adjustable, as it is on the more expensive strobes - I'm not sure I'd even class this as an irritation - simply an observation.

I have used the strobe on 3 photo shoots now (article on those due in the next couple of days), and have been very pleased with the ease of use, and consistent results. I use my Cactus V radio triggers to fire the flash (and there is a very convenient cold shoe on the underside of the casing so the receiver does not have to dangle on the end of the cable), though it also has a light sensor on the top and can work on 'slave' mode (haven't actually tried this yet).  The controls are very simple - plug it in and switch on the main (green) power button.  Switch on the modeling light if required. Adjust the power up or down (from 10 to 80, where 80 is full power) using the + and - buttons.  There is a test button to fire the flash manually, and a button to turn the audible beep on and off. If you have that on, then it beeps when the flash power has recycled. As well as the audible beep, there is a bright blue LED that shows when the flash is ready to go. And that is all there is to it. The front end of the head has a universal mount, with a nice recessed ring in it, that helps to secure a softbox or other fittings, and reduce the possibility of them slipping off.

So, the moment of truth... Today, I set up a test to make sure I would actually get 8 stops of adjustment.  By my reckoning, if I set up a shot with a very small aperture and the strobe on full power, then decreased the power and opened the aperture by one stop at a time, then in theory, all the pictures should have the same exposure. If you look at the settings in the table below, you can see that my lens doesn't have 8 stops of latitude, so for the final 2 tests, I had to also lengthen the shutter speed to achieve the same exposure value.

And here are the results (excuse the hastily thrown together testbed)...
 ...so not totally consistent exposure across the whole range of adjustment, but unless you are doing an exercise like this, it wouldn't really matter, as you would most likely be adjusting the light, aperture, shutter speed, angles, distances, and everything by eye anyway.  The important result for me is that the minimum power setting IS actually 8 stops away from full power, and not just 1/8th of it.

So am I pleased with it? Yes - absolutely.  A minor setback with the plug at the beginning, but otherwise, I'm very pleased. It may not be the most powerful strobe in the world, but I don't feel that at this point in my life, I need multiple 1200WS strobes to light a huge studio from all angles (since I don't have a huge studio), and it fits my needs.  I'd certainly consider getting a second one if my move towards portrait and/or product photography goes as I hope...

Until the next time,
Happy Snappin'

Friday, March 14, 2014

Valentine's Rose

See me in Flickr
I bought a single red rose for Karen, for Valentine's Day (I know, I'm just a soppy romantic...), and one evening, I noticed it caught in the light in our lounge, and felt compelled to try and catch it with the camera.

It was after dark, so the only light in the room was from a single wall light.  I wanted to try and catch a 'low-key' image with the beautiful red bloom against a mainly dark background.

The TV, with its large flat black screen (when switched off) looked like it might provide a nice backdrop, as long as I could get the angle right so there were no reflections on it.  I experimented for a while with both positioning, and also exposure, until I came up with this shot.

Unfortunately, importing the picture into the blog has reduced the quality a bit so I've included a link see it in Flickr.

Obviously, even in low light, the camera will try and give a 'properly' exposed image, and I specifically wanted it dark and contrasty, so I set the exposure compensation to underexpose by 1/3 of a stop, and used spot metering on the brightest part of the rose.  At a reasonably small aperture (I think it was around f/8) to get the whole thing in focus, I got a shutter speed of 30 seconds!  Wow - it was dimmer than I realised.

Just to ad a little 'bling', I gave the rose a quick spray with water to give the 'dew' effect, and then during the 30 second exposure, I also played a small torch over the top togive a few catchlights in those dewdrops.  Now, this had an unfortunate effect on the photo - the torch has bright white LEDs which actually give off a much bluer light than the incandescent bulb in the wall lamp.  The net effect was that the deep red bloom was actually now showing up with a pink colour cast.  A little playing in Photoshop managed to get rid of most of it, but there are still pinkish highlights to the edges of the petals.

While playing in Photoshop, though I love the clarity of the first shot. I thought about trying a nice 'glow' effect, that is often seen in glamour/fashion shots.  To do this, create a duplicate layer on top of the original, and apply a huge amount of Gaussian Blur to it.  Enough so that it is completely blurred, but still retains the shape and just a hint of the contrasting lines between the petals. Now adjust the opacity of that top level to let the super clear bottom layer shine through it.  You'll have to judge this by eye - there is no magic formula or 'correct' value.  The last thing I did was to apply a layer mask to the top layer, and used that to mask out the very centre of the blurred layer with a soft edged brush, allowing even more of the clear level to shine through, just in the very centre of the bloom.

Again, this picture doesn't really do the original justice but I don't have a copy of this one in Flickr I'm afraid.

Until next time
Happy Snappin'

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Time to hang up my camera and find a new hobby

OK - I've always said it - I want to sell one of my pictures, just once, and preferably not to a sympathetic relative who just feels sorry for me.

Well, it only took 16,300 attempts, but... I'VE FINALLY DONE IT!.

Not only has someone seen, liked, and bought one of my pictures, but that someone is no less than the mighty National Geographic!!

I was rather skeptical at first when I woke up one morning last week, and blearily checked my email while making a cup of tea to wake me up, only to see an email saying something along the lines of "Nat Geo would love to pay you for one of your pictures - just fill in this form that gives us all your bank details..."  Well, I have lost count of the number of times I have won the Eurolottery - if I just send $100 admin fee to claim my prize, or the opportunities to assist with all manner of good causes who need money moved out of politically stifled locations, if only they could use my bank account as a conduit... so my immediate reaction was "Yeah, right- SCAM!!!"

But my ego was sufficiently piqued, that I decided to follow it up, by contacting Nat Geo via independent means, and asking if this was fair dinkum.  I was pleasantly surprised to get confirmation not only that the offer was genuine, but that they want my picture to go in a children's book about Meerkats (yes - it was one of my many Meerkat pictures).

I was worried about the fact the photo was taken in a zoo, but even after declaring that to them, Nat Geo have confirmed they do not need any kind of release form (phew).  This may be because there is nothing in the picture to identify the zoo (or even that it is IN a zoo) and there are no identifiable people in it - though I don't know how easy it is to uniquely identify a Meerkat... (but Meerkats don't count as people - apart from the one in the "Compare the Meerkats" adverts, maybe).  However, I think it is more likely to be because the photo will be used 'editorially' rather than 'commercially' (in broad terms - 'commercial use' basically means some form of advertising, whereas 'editorial use' means to illustrate - such as in a news story, magazine, or book.  So a picture IN a book is editorial, but a picture on the front cover (arguably) or a poster advertising the book, is commercial - at least, that is how I understand it).

So, that's it.  I've achieved my goal.  Time to hang up my camera and find a new hobby..?

I don't think so!  

It just means I need a new challenge to aim for - like actually being commissioned to produce something, rather than just having something seen online - or maybe framing and displaying some of my work somewhere beyond my house.  Don't know at the moment...

Though I still love to photograph nature, I want to start experimenting more with controlled lighting, for portrait and product photography - so maybe my new challenge will lead me along that route.